Ten Thousand Democracies: Politics and Public Opinion in America's School Districts

By Michael B. Berkman; Eric Plutzer | Go to book overview

chapter seven
The Gray Peril
Reconsidered

As baby boomers age and life expectancy increases, the country's politics will be increasingly influenced by the needs and preferences of older Americans. By 2030, people over sixty-five years of age will outnumber those under twenty, reversing the nation's demographic profile (MacManus 1995). These trends are especially disturbing to education policy scholars such as Michael Kirst, who identify the growing elderly population as one of several “major societal negative forces” (Sirkin 1985) that could curtail spending on public schools. Journalistic accounts in the conventional press (e.g., Archibold 2001) and specialized venues such as the American School Board Journal (Wheeler 2000) and Education Week (e.g., Gewertz 2000; Olson 1992) echo the notion that older voters vote against school budgets, bonds, and spending increases.

In this chapter, we look at whether concentrations of older citizens constitute the “Gray Peril” (Rosenbaum and Button 1989) to school funding that many scholars, policymakers, and educators predict. Our findings in chapter 3 would appear to bear out the risk: In every public opinion survey we examined, those over sixty-five years old were less likely to support spending more on education. But there are actually no studies that directly test the Gray Peril hypothesis.1 As we will explain, there are reasons to believe that the logic of the Gray Peril—rooted, as we will see, in the use of the property tax to fund public education— can lead many seniors to support spending on their neighborhood schools. We show that America's senior citizens are not a monolithic group, that public opinion polls can be misinterpreted, and that insti-

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